Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Would You Like to Fry in Hell With that Shake?

This is a paper I wrote for my Late Antique Monotheism Class, I changed the title for web publication. I wasn't really happy with the way it turned out; I had a LOT more I wanted to say on the issue, but with a looming deadline and other school worries... well, it is what it is...

It is popular sport to compare modern America to Rome, usually as a warning of impending collapse, an illumination of a seemingly obvious arc that demonstrates the simplest rule of gravity: what goes up must come down. This analogy generally points to a singular, though admittedly broad, cause for Roman collapse: sin. Though the word itself often goes unsaid, it can be recognized by its semi-euphemistic replacements: excess, overindulgence or any number of other words which speak to the widespread vice of the Romans. These terms conjure up a society conquered by the evils of alcohol and promiscuity, one so consumed with Bacchanalian orgies that it forgot to govern itself and could not be bothered to trifle with rampaging barbarian hordes. This historically suspect account of the fall of the Roman Empire circulates in American culture as a matter of convenience, casting a popular modern cultural anxiety as the villain in a sort of post-Christian morality tale. Of course, this is not to suggest that Christians and Jews living under Roman rule viewed their contemporary governments as being free of excess; on the contrary, the criticisms of Church fathers and rabbinical voices of Late Antiquity provide not only the basis for this limited understanding of Rome’s fall, but they also form the ideological foundation for modern anxieties surrounding sin and its effect on social stability. Of course, the anti-Christian Gibbonian response to the patristic narrative is an equally unsatisfying portrayal of Christian influences on Roman civilization as parasitic and culturally foreign. Both of these interpretations, the positivist and the Gibbonian, suggest that Judeo-Christian thinking was ideologically separate from the secular management of the state and its resources. Recent scholarship surrounding Late Antique society and identity have done a great deal to frame these ancient religious scholars within the context of their times. When these critics are viewed as an organic extension of their society they are revealed as objects of comparison in their own right, parallel champions of a question of orthodoxy preserved down through the labyrinthine meanderings of the prototypical Christian heart. By comparing Late Antique ascetic voices with the religious and dietary movements of nineteenth century America I will demonstrate that the spiritual anxieties established during the formative years of Christianity were very much alive and well as spiritual concerns in the early modern American mind, and I will further demonstrate the persistence of these views in modern popular culture. This approach seeks to position these social criticisms, from the Late Antique to the modern, firmly within a continuous genre of text and behavior that is first and foremost an internal cultural production.
The American evangelist and early dietitian Sylvester Graham began his career lecturing on the virtues of temperance in 1829, rising to national prominence through the 1930s; during this period he developed a comprehensive system to explain human physiology, one which asserted a direct correlation between health and the moral implications of food choice and sexuality (Nissenbaum, pg. 33). At the same time, the Shaker movement in America had grown to approximately 4,000 members living in celibate religious communes at its height in the 1830s (Foster, pg. 17). That same decade saw the Mormon founding prophet Joseph Smith Jr. gathering supporters to his ministry, preaching a newly revealed religious testament; he was murdered by an angry mob in 1844. That same year, not far from Joseph Smith’s hometown, hundreds of Millerites gathered in a field to welcome the prodigal son of God, Jesus Christ, back to Earth. He was a no-show, but that did not stop many of the Millerites (henceforth referred to as Adventists, the largest surviving branch of the Millerite movement) from reformulating his return date, and eventually the very definition of what it meant for Christ to return in order to rectify their observations with their messianic expectations. What about this period brought about fresh apocalyptic discourse, new bouts of prophecy, persecution and martyr narratives, and newfound interest in asceticism and the widespread fetishism of dietary regulation? Lawrence Foster and Stephen Nissenbaum, studying sexuality in pre-Civil War religious movements and Sylvester Graham respectively, both seem to point to the emergence of the market economy in Jacksonian America and the uncertainty of the shift from rural subsistence culture to a more dynamic economic system which incorporated wider regional commerce systems and the abandonment of the household as the primary producer as chief cause of spiritual anxiety (Foster, pg. 5; Nissenbaum, pg.5 ). While I do not dispute the impact of economic systems on the daily lives of the common people, I am less inclined to fully ascribe the success of these movements to a Marxist understanding of class dissatisfaction within a community marginalized by its inability to compete in emerging regional agricultural markets (namely, northeastern farmers versus Ohio valley farmers). While this localized depression and fracturing of family units in favor of labor mobility in the emerging industrial society might explain the penchant for communal living amongst these emerging movements as an economic response, they do not necessarily satisfy to explain the extreme religiosity of these groups. I would instead point firstly to the larger instability of the new American nation, not much older than most of the early adherents to these movements, with its rapid expansion and recent history of violence (the War of 1812 undoubtedly serving as a watershed moment in the lives of many of these religious leaders) possibly contributing to a lack of meaningful national identity or fear of state collapse while at the same time opening up the promise of new beginnings and territory in which an ideal polity might arise. Secondly, I would argue that the desire to establish a more perfect society in the religious sense has been a continuous endeavor within Judeo-Christian communities at least from the time of Late Antiquity onward, whereby a religious group seeking to achieve an earthly spiritual perfection separates itself from a larger population to achieve a closer connection to divinity; in that sense, these new movements arose as the ideological heirs of a distinctly (though not uniquely) American colonial ambition which traces its roots back to those first Puritan communities to establish themselves on the Atlantic coastline. That these particular movements also arose at a time of vast reimagining of territorial interrelationships and economic change should not distract from the fact that this issue of cultural purity was an ongoing cyclical pursuit predating the market economy and, for that matter, Marxist analysis of class relationships. Therefore, I think it best to describe these movements as long-standing conventional Judeo-Christian responses necessitated by contemporary existential challenges. This genre would, in fact, fall into a broader category of identity narratives formed in response to external stimulus. So, to explore this in terms of a less specific response I find it helpful to form a weak analogous relationship between Late Antique Christian Rome and 1800s Christian America.
The weakness of the American national identity, though manifest in these nineteenth century religious movements, is perhaps better demonstrated by the growing gulf between the northern and southern states which would eventually lead to the American Civil War. The uncertainty of the political and economic climate at this time in the United States is perhaps comparable to the tenuous position of Rome in Late Antiquity from the Third Century Crisis onward. Further extending, and perhaps straining, this metaphor one could argue that early colonial America most closely resembles the newly Christianized empire following the ascension of Constantine. Both periods are marked by an establishment of religious agency for Christians in the form Constantine’s legitimization of Christianity and the de facto freedom of religion in colonial America which was later codified by the First Amendment clause preventing state sanction or prohibition of religion; this factor coupled with the possibility of governmental collapse in the 1800s as a result of internal struggle or outside invasion perhaps encouraged the people to cleave toward religious identities rather than political ones in spite of secular empowerment. This is a superficial comparison, but one which illustrates comparable conditions under which certain struggles for orthodoxy might arise. It is telling that following Constantine’s rise to power that a Christian church which had been at least nominally united in purpose and common suffering quickly fractured into a wide array of competing Christianities, each trying to gain popular and state support for its brand of faith. The forums for the exchange and legitimization of Christian theology were the ecumenical councils initiated by Constantine in an effort to mandate uniformity throughout the Empire in effort cultivate a valuable cultural resource. Lacking a governmental entity to drive debate the early American churches competed exclusively for public support, which of course carries real political capital in a democracy. In Joseph Smith’s telling of his pre-prophetic struggles with choosing a denomination he describes the spiritual tension present in his community during his adolescent years:
Some time in the second year after our removal to Manchester [New York], there was in the place where we lived an unusual excitement on the subject of religion. It commenced with the Methodists, but soon became general among all the sects in that region of country. Indeed, the whole district of country seemed affected by it, and great multitudes united themselves to the different religious parties, which created no small stir and division amongst the people, some crying, “Lo, here!” and others, “Lo, there!” Some were contending for the Methodist faith, some for the Presbyterian, and some for the Baptist. For, notwithstanding the great love which the converts to these different faiths expressed at the time of their conversion, and the great zeal manifested by the respective clergy, who were active in getting up and promoting this extraordinary scene of religious feeling, in order to have everybody converted, as they were pleased to call it, let them join what sect they pleased; yet when the converts began to file off, some to one party and some to another, it was seen that the seemingly good feelings of both the priests and the converts were more pretended than real; for a scene of great confusion and bad feeling ensued—priest contending against priest, and convert against convert; so that all their good feelings one for another, if they ever had any, were entirely lost in a strife of words and a contest about opinions.[…] In the midst of this war of words and tumult of opinions, I often said to myself: What is to be done? Who of all these parties are right; or, are they all wrong together? If any one of them be right, which is it, and how shall I know it? (Smith)

This scene is more than slightly reminiscent of the souring of early Christian communities under Constantine; in both cases, most if not all of the sects perceived common cause in the Christianization of the people, but once the ideological terrain was established the participants found their portions lacking and proceeded to attack rival organizations. Though Smith describes a relatively local spiritual revival, I would argue that these questions of faith arose in the historically puritanical New England as one of many responses throughout the fledgling nation to the larger condition of the state. The conflict itself is more or less comparable to the increasing arena of ideas in Late Antiquity which featured regional disputes played out on an empire-wide stage. These sectarian behaviors would seem to indicate that differences of belief and practice are tolerable until such a point that organizations are forced to compete for limited resources (money, political influence, believers and so forth). While this does invoke a Marxist approach to competition over resources, I think it important to note that these group identities were engaged in complex economies that defy simple class designation incorporating both material and spiritual currencies; each group certainly saw itself as being spiritually rich or elite by virtue of purity, but ultimately the spiritual debates tended to be won by those who engaged it with material means, as demonstrated by the hefty bribes paid by Cyril to officials in Constantinople to ensure the success of his theological position, or the active legal persecution of Mormons as an insurgent group in Missouri (Maas, pg. 123)
Having established a passable analogy through which to illustrate the larger socio-economic factors in the New England religious revivals and Late Antiquity which might have spawned broader questions of identity in these distant Christian communities, I would like to further narrow these responses to the reemergence of uniquely Judeo-Christian narratives. Which is to say that, given the above circumstances, particularly in the light of emerging regional identities evidenced by the eventual secession of the American Confederates, the struggles these Christian groups engaged in were not purely theological in nature. First, I would like to address persecution narratives which, though not purely Christian, occupy a prominent position in the larger Christian narrative. The animosity unleashed in Late Antique councils held by newly liberated Christians from the point of view of a challenged would have seemed nothing short of a persecution. Gregory of Nazianzius, at the time Bishop of Constantinople and a supporter of the ultimately victorious Trinitarian view of God, described the manner in which he was challenged by his opponents in no uncertain terms, “[…]They were like a swarm of wasps suddenly darting up in one’s face and, far from attempting to chasten them, the august assembly of elders actually joined the demonstration.” (Nazianzus, pg. 123). Joseph Smith’s account of local early opposition to his prophetic pronouncements is virtually identical.
[…]though I was an obscure boy, only between fourteen and fifteen years of age, and my circumstances in life such as to make a boy of no consequence in the world, yet men of high standing would take notice sufficient to excite the public mind against me, and create a bitter persecution; and this was common among all the sects—all united to persecute me.

The similarity of established narratives in these two periods indicate a strong continuity of response in Christian communities to questions of orthodoxy, both internal and external to innovative groups. Specifically of interest are the indictment of the “men in high standing” and “the august assembly of elders” who engage in the petty shouting down of righteous men clarifying the will of God. This can be directly correlated to the earliest Christian challenges of entrenched Judaism, with the Pharisee challenges to Jesus and his apostles.
Paul looked straight at the Sanhedrin and said, "My brothers, I have fulfilled my duty to God in all good conscience to this day."At this the high priest Ananias ordered those standing near Paul to strike him on the mouth.[…]The dispute became so violent that the commander was afraid Paul would be torn to pieces by them.(Acts 23:1-10)

In this uniquely Christian sense, it is not enough to be challenged by the young and foolish, but to be persecuted by the supposedly wise elders leading the community away from salvation. This urge to position Christianity as a battle against entrenched falsehoods is continuous throughout Christian history even when those narratives pit the larger Christian community against itself; those seeking to innovate or reform assume a Christlike identity in the face of a corrupt Pharisaic body. The adoption of these Christ-like identities is especially important in the ascetic tradition of Late Antiquity, and is further reflected in the practices of 1800s American religious attitudes. Though not unique to Christian practices, these devout religious groups actively participated in the colonization and sanctification of public space through the formation of isolated communities in which members could engage in a form of group spiritual purity. These communities, in both times, establish a space in which all aspects of social commerce were approached from a religious standpoint. On the grander end of the scale there are the recurring attempts to re-colonize Jerusalem in an effort to approximate or realize the Christian apocalyptic notion of the heavenly Jerusalem on Earth. Robert Wilkens’ The Land Called Holy describes this surviving Christian connection to a physical Jerusalem as “[…]an irreplaceable sign of continuity with the first Christian community and with Christ[…]”. In this sense, the reclamation of Zion serves to connect Christian communities with their past and by extension to that original promise of salvation given by Christ to the faithful. In Late Antiquity, this amounted to the transformation of Jerusalem under Constantine into a physical Christian Holy Land complete with Churches marking the locations of milestones in the life and resurrection of Jesus. This desire can be seen further played out in the colonization of desert space outside of Jerusalem by Christian ascetics attempting to sanctify the public and personal aspects of society. In the early modern movements these upstart religious movements certainly formed their own communities in the public space through the foundation of new churches and church hierarchies, publications, whole communities (in the case of the Shakers and Mormons), and in the case of the Mormons the foundation of a full-blown independent theocratic state cast in the mold of Jerusalem and ruled by the Earthly prophet (and successor to the martyred Joseph Smith) Brigham Young in the Utah territory… until the United States Cavalry peacefully asserted United States authority over the region. These are but a few examples of the uniquely Christian narratives to survive into the formative period of modern American culture, but these Biblical expressions also arrived part and parcel with other notions established in Late Antique which have their roots in the Biblical exegesis of the period.
In highlighting specific concerns for purity derived from extra-Biblical narratives in Late Antiquity, I hope to demonstrate that anxieties surrounding personal purity survived into modern times, transmitted through the ages by Christian thinkers, though not necessarily codified by canonical scripture. Thus I am hoping to demonstrate the continuation of a uniquely Christian ascetic narrative both within and separate from the mainstream narrative which resurfaced in the popular thinking of Jacksonian America. The accounts of the lives of saints in early Christian literature there is a recurring theme of temptation or challenge by dark forces frequently taking the form of—though certainly not limited to—the following “vices”: women, food, alcohol and money. All of these concerns can be explained through biblical passages, however, of particular note is the connection that some of these objects have in the Late Antique mind. While many cultures possess a communal knowledge of aphrodisiacs, ranging from oysters to bull testicles to I the aptly named horny goat weed, Late Antique thinkers—perhaps drawing on Hellenestic medicine or Jewish table law or some combination of the two—developed a complicated worldview surrounding the relationship between food and sexuality. In these communities there was, among other things, a link between fasting and virginity, the idea that one’s body could be more chaste through the denial of fleshly concerns. Late antique interest in virgin spiritual language combined with notions of fasting, which in turn are likely partly derived from Greco-Roman medical ideas about healthy dietary habits which linked the perceived properties of food to their likely effects on the physical body (to include sexual effects), led to an inextricable tie between spiritual health and bodily purity governed by stimulation. The direct correlation between gluttony and lust are present throughout Christian ascetic literature; Basil of Ancyra pointedly provides the following warning:
[…]through the sense of touch in tasting—which is always seducing toward gluttony by swallowing—the body, fattened up and titillated by the soft humors bubbling uncontrollably inside, is carried in a frenzy toward the touch of sexual intercourse. (Shaw, pg. 85)

Outside of the Christian community in Late Antiquity a competing dietary tradition existed amongst the Germanic tribes which would one day overtake the Roman west. This excerpt from Einhard’s Life of Charlegmagne can perhaps make the differences between Late Antique Christian attitudes toward diet and early medieval Christian traditions clear:
His meals ordinarily consisted of four courses, not counting the roast, which his huntsmen used to bring in on the spit[…]he was moderate in the use of wine and all sorts of drink that he rarely allowed himself more than three cups in the course of a meal. (Einhard, pg. 59)

Perhaps it’s not fair to apply this meal to the modern conventional division of meals between breakfast, lunch and dinner, but there is a very stark difference between dietary habits of what would become the ruling class in Christendom and the early monastic movements… which isn’t to say that those movements did not persist, but simply that the popular culture carried on with the notion that rich food and vitality were good things. How strange then that more than a thousand years later that a self-appointed doctor and registered minister should be diagnosing all the physical ailments of Jacksonian America as debility brought about by imperious dietary habits that provoked lust in the hearts meat-eaters everywhere creating a physiological imbalance(Nissenbaum, pg. 127). It should come as no surprise then that as Sylvester Graham was championing his purer dietary systems, the feverous religious movements of the same day began to incorporate his teachings into their own. Joseph Smith, as early as 1833, had begun incorporating ideas promoted by Graham into Mormon doctrine.
Use of wine, strong drinks, tobacco, and hot drinks proscribed; Herbs, fruits, flesh, and grain are ordained for the use of man and of animals; Obedience to gospel law, including the Word of Wisdom, brings temporal and spiritual blessings. (Smith, Sect. 89 ln. 1-21) Today, a large number of Adeventists still practice vegetarianism.
It is often easy to distinguish overtly religious responses in our society; however, there are times when these reactions are so deeply coded into the fabric of our culture as to not be readily apparent. I am particularly interested in how these ideas transform over time to adapt to new generations and new, even contradictory, attitudes. Few people would consider eating a hamburger to be a particularly sexual act, and yet our pop-culture has preserved the notional link between gluttony and sexual deviance. What constitutes gluttony has certainly changed, as has what constitutes sexual deviance. In 2009, two movies were released in which female bodies were being remotely controlled in sexual situations by obese men. In one of the movies, Gamer, the man is actively eating a sandwich while forcing a woman to have non-consensual sex with similarly controlled human avatar named “Rick Rape”. Over the years, the food has gotten unhealthier, the sexual deviance has gotten more deviant and the gluttons have gotten more glutted, but the message is the same and not one most Americans would recognize or even correlate to religion. In this sense, we can place the preservation of Late Antique Christian responses in to three basic categories: those which are tied to a need for generic identity, those specifically tied to biblical identity narratives and those which persist as specific ideas. All have carried on in one way or another into modern times, and in all likelihood will continue to carry forward whether we recognize them for what they are or not.